A few brief thoughts about the size of music paper

Opinion

Today, within the span of several hours, I received several inquiries from separate sources wondering if 9” x 12” paper was acceptable for orchestral use, or if 10” x 13” was necessary. (Of course, these are North American paper sizes.)

This question comes up quite a bit, but today it seemed like rapid-fire. The query seems to arise every so often on the various Facebook groups related to music engraving and score preparation.

So, in brief, here’s my experience.

9” x 12” is perfectly acceptable. Based on working with hundreds of orchestras and direct feedback from countless librarian and performer colleagues, it’s not the size of the page that they’re really concerned about. It’s the legibility of the music.

Music prepared and printed on 9” x 12” paper (click for large photo)

If the staff lines and notes are large enough to read, you’re good. If you have itty-bitty notes with no cues, it won’t matter if you have a page that is 5 feet tall, you’ll still have a revolt on your hands.

What’s a good staff size? I thought you’d never ask…

The sweet spot for much of the music I prepare is around 7.5 mm. For studio sessions and other instances where music is sight-read, the stands are shared, and/or lighting is sub-optimal, 7.7 mm is nice; for chamber music that is likely to have the benefit of a lot of rehearsal, 7.3 mm or even smaller can be just fine. Sometimes adjustments are necessary based on the style and genre of the music, so don’t take these measurements as gospel. And when the music is being read on the likes of iPads, all bets are off, given that the music is likely to be resized to fit the screen.

Don’t take my word for it; the authoritative MOLA Guidelines for Music Preparation, updated this year for the first time in a decade by some of the best in the business, advises the same.

Of course, the larger the paper, the more music you can fit. This can make laying out your music and finding page turns easier, but with a good copyist it’s rarely a problem.

The reason 9” x 12” has evolved as acceptable is that it’s still larger than 8.5” x 11” but can be printed by laser printers that can print 18” x 12” (for booklet printing) but don’t take up an entire room. These printers aren’t exactly tiny, but it is possible to transport an HP LaserJet 5200 to a session for on-site printing, if necessary.

Once you get to 19” x 13” or 20” x 13” you have to print on a huge commercial printer (unless you use an inkjet printer, which is totally unacceptable; heaven forbid your music encounter the slightest bit of moisture). 9.5” x 13” is often used even when 10” x 13” is insisted upon because 19” x 13” is a standard digital paper size.

Music prepared and printed on 9.5” x 13” paper (click for large photo)

For many years, 9.5” x 12.5” was a standard size because it was widely used in the sadly all-but extinct world of hand-copied music. Even after music became mostly copied on computers, 9.5” x 12.5” was still regularly used, but 9” x 12” is a perfectly fine alternative for the reasons stated above.

You can still find 9.5” x 12.5” manuscript paper at Judy Green Music and perhaps in some specialty stores. When I was a graduate student at Juilliard in the 1990s, they sold it at the bookstore, but I don’t know if that’s still the case.

My friend Charlie Waters wrote an excellent essay in 2002 about the world of hand-copied music and finding manuscript paper at the legendary Associated Music Copy Service (not to be confused with Associated Music Publishers).

I’m lucky enough to have in my possession a number of charts copied by the great Bert Kosow, who, in addition to being a premier copyist of his time, ran a successful music copying class in the 1980s where no detail was too small to overlook, including the precise make and model of the Pelikan Graphos pen that was recommended. All of that music was copied on 9.5” x 12.5” paper.

An instructional page from Bert Kosow’s music copying class, on 9.5” x 12.5” paper (click for large photo)

This barely scratches the surface of the history of music page sizes, so if you have stories you’d like to share or additional information you’d like to provide — or, more topically, current experience you have preparing music on different page sizes — please feel free to comment below!

Comments

  1. Kevin Weed

    Thank you. I am glad the MOLA guidelines have been updated.

  2. Peter Roos

    Great post, and very timely … I just purchased an HP 5200 DTN for music printing, film music in particular (parts and scores), and for the past two weeks have been shopping for music paper. Questions: 1. what about 8.5 x 11 inch (letter) for parts — is that too small? We used that at Skywalker for film scoring sessions and the musicians were fine with that; and 2. do you have any preference as to paper thickness, color, smoothness, and any particular brand? I went to the local Kelly Paper store in Oakland and found this paper I really like: Domtar Cougar grain long, smooth, natural, 80/32lb. (118 grams per square meter). It’s not bright white but a bit off-white, nice thick quality, and smooth to the touch. Very nice overall. They have the same paper in 11×17, but not in the same thickness, 70/28 lb (or 103 grams per m2). They’d have to special order the thicker quality and have it cut, which became an expensive exercise. If you try to order online, shipping orders can quickly add up, but I found a store (3 Star Papers) that had a pretty good deal, including shipping. The paper thickness standards are pretty confusing, by the way, for anyone shopping for paper I’d recommend to go to a store and look at it first. Sorry for the long rant, thanks for your blogs Philip, they are always super helpful. Cheers, Peter.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Peter. Letter size is OK in a pinch, if the music is legible. Your paper choices sound good to me. Some paper brands are more readily available in different areas. Due to the high cost of shipping, if you find a local supplier you like, stick with it.

  3. Tiago

    Nice post Philip,

    Is that the Norfolk Font in the first picture (12″x9″ example) ?
    Looking great.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Tiago, thanks. Actually – that one is using good old Opus, but with Helsinki Text for dynamics. Same with the Copland example.

  4. Bob Nowak

    Philip, good post to bring us all up to date. You also stirred some nice memories. I got my start with the old 9.5 x 12.5 hand copied parts. You’re right about Associated Music Copy Service which was run by Bob Haring and then after Bob’s passing continued its operation under the leadership of his wife Judy. The other big supplier in NY was King Brand which was my personal favorite. Both places had great manuscript papers, score paper, and various supplies and reference books for copyists. And in those days before digital printing both houses were invaluable for reproducing and binding scores and parts. Bert Kosow was one of the legendary copyists of his day. I worked side by side with Bert not long before he left us. His early partner, Tony Ragusa, who helped Bert start his office and then moved on, was my mentor. It actually took a number of years for me to be able to use my Pelikan pen efficiently without getting ink all over my hands! Ah, those were the days! Nevertheless I am quite happy with our digital notation programs, for among the many benefits are no more leaky pens and no more messy erasures. Continue your fine work.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Bob! Thanks for this terrific reminiscence.

  5. Steve Alper

    FWIW, we still print to 9-1/2 X 12-1/2 for Broadway today. Most librarians can tell you the exact enlargement to get from the 8-1/2 X 11 we use for proofing.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Steve!

  6. Seann Alderking

    Any thoughts about non-American size papers (A, B series)? B4 seems to be the closest profile to 10×13 but it’s very hard to come by, and even big venues like the Opera House Covent Garden cut their own. A4 (our more or less equivalent to 8.5×11) seems to end up being used a lot just because it’s the most available size…

    1. Philip Rothman

      Seann, I’ll let my European colleagues speak to this. Hopefully someone will chime in.

      1. Carlo van der Put

        Hello Philip,

        The Metopole Orchestra ( Netherlands) uses B4 for parts and A3 for scores . Staff size 8 ( except for piano, there I use staff size 7 )
        For my own printing of parts I use 9,5 x 12,5.
        120 grams, a little off white…

        Best ,

        Carlo van der Put

        1. Philip Rothman

          Thank you, Carlo!

          1. Yehonatan Beerbaum

            My experience, which is mainly based in the German musical theatre business is, that most of the librarians ask for A4 (parts) and A3 (Scores) because it’s the most common (and cheapest) format.

            I really liked my parts in the B4 format, but in my experience it’s not really often used anymore.

            BTW: I use 7mm staff size for parts. Was fine for years but after reading this article I’m thinking about it. Too small?

  7. Julian Bennett Holmes

    Does anyone have a suggestion for a good laser printer that can print 12×18?
    Is the HP 5200 the best bet? And does anyone know if the automatic duplex on that printer can handle 12×18, or only 11×17?

    1. David Lovrien

      The HP 5200 is great up to 12×18 but in my experience the duplexer doesn’t work reliably above legal size. They are tanks and will print millions of pages if serviced regularly, and can usually be found used (reconditioned) for just a few hundred bucks.

  8. Frank Fitzpatrick

    Thank you for this article and all the others that you write. My question is about full orchestra scores for the conductor. In Finale I am entering a symphony I wrote. With 25 staffs to a page the print is microscopic on 8 1/2 by 11. What is standard practice?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Frank, I would recommend 11×14 or 11×17 for full-size scores.

  9. Jason

    Hey Philip so I guess 8.5 staff size in the Mola Guideline pdf for strings is not used these days and 8.0mm is perfectly fine for most all instruments? Also if 9×12 for parts is now the common page size what do you recommend in regards to page margins? I noticed Sibelius seems to give a lot more white space around the page but curious on your thoughts

    1. Tiago

      Hi Jason, I guess you meant 7.5 instead of 8.5 in the Mola Guideline. Since I read it I increased my template to 7.5 (from Sibelius 7.0 default) and and some musicians at the orchestra find it too big now (A4 standard paper format where I live). I’ll give 7.2 mm a try.

    2. Philip Rothman

      Jason, it’s true the MOLA guidelines say that “anything larger than 8.5 mm should be avoided” but even 8.0 is really rather large. I would say between 7.2 and 7.8 mm. For margins I’d recommend about 2/3 inch or 16 mm.

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